SACRAMENTO, Calif. — On the last day of September, Calif. Governor Jerry Brown announced that he has signed into law the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act, known as Senate Bill 9. The act requires those sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed when they were minors to serve at least 25 years in prison before they become eligible for parole.
It provides those offenders several opportunities to ask for a reduced sentence of 25-years-to-life, the first coming after youths serve 15 years in prison and show signs of remorse and rehabilitation. They are also eligible, if, they had an adult co-defendant.
The new law "represents a significant shift away from harsh sentencing policies that ignore the unique characteristics of children," said Jody Kent Lavy, director and national coordinator of the Washington D.C.-based Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, in an emailed statement to the Monterey County Herald. "Science has proven what every parent knows — that young people are still developing both physically and emotionally and their brains, not just their bodies, are not yet fully mature. Because of these differences, youth have greater potential to become rehabilitated."
Statewide, about 300 inmates are serving life without parole terms received as juveniles, and Lavy and other supporters of the new law say the U.S. is the only country in the world that sentences children to die in prison.
The law follows three U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have re-shaped the nation's application of the most extreme punishments for youths. In 2005, the high court prohibited the death penalty for juveniles; in 2010, it outlawed life without parole for non-homicide crimes committed by minors; and this year, it barred states from imposing mandatory life without parole sentences for minors, allowing judges the discretion to consider mitigating factors and lesser sentences.
Even before the passage of SB 9, California's high court had recently struck down "de facto" life without parole terms for juveniles when it reversed the 115-years-to-life sentence of a 16-year-old Los Angeles boy.
In December 2010, a bill was introduced that was authored by Senator Yee, with principal co-authors Senators Steinberg and Vargas, and co-authors Assembly Members Fuentes and Lowenthal. In May 2011, SB 9 was amended. It now permits up to three hearings for a youth sentenced to life without parole, and requires a statement of remorse and rehabilitation.